El Zarco, the Bandit

by Ignacio Manuel Altamirano

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Standards of "Proper" Female Behavior (and the Consequences for Violating Them)

This work might be read as a morality tale describing two contrary approaches to female life. Manuela’s spiteful attitude toward her godsister regarding Nicolas and the flowers that the two girls are weaving at the beginning of the story is intended to elicit dislike in readers—a dislike which is further born out when it is revealed that Manuela has been carrying on a disreputable love affair with the villainous El Zarco. Manuela is shown to receive her just reward for being dissatisfied with the path that her mother and society more broadly had planned for her when she is plunged into a life of danger and iniquity with the bandits. In contrast, Pilar’s humility—being silent in the face of her godsister’s insults and keeping her love for Nicolas a secret while she believes his affections to be focused on Manuela—is intended to inspire a reader’s admiration. While Manuela’s character arc ends with grief and death, Pilar’s ends with a happy marriage. The last encounter between the two women sees Pilar sitting in a carriage, a symbol of wealth and stability, in a position to judge her counterpart’s actions and to extend charity toward her. (She does, though the offer is rejected.) Manuela’s commitment to El Zarco is admirable, but its result seems a warning to young women, a suggestion that they reserve their commitment for those who are worthy of it.

True Justice versus Governmental Corruption

This work contrasts the inefficiency and corruption of the Mexican government with the successes of Martín Sánchez, the vigilante who needs no more than presidential approval to round up and punish the evil El Zarco and his allies. In the figure of the cavalry officer whom Nicolas accuses of neglecting his duty, readers can see a microcosmic representation of the Mexican government at the time: ineffective and not at all principled, caring more about perceived slights to its honor than about the realities of life for its citizens. By contrast, Sanchez’s ambition and drive as an instrument of justice is portrayed as right and proper, based in laws of obligation to his dead family members and to his society more broadly, which are older and more binding laws than those of the Mexican republic.

People Are Fundamentally Good or Fundamentally Evil

This novel presents a very simplistic conception of a struggle between good and evil. This would have been highly familiar and appropriate to its contemporary readership, but it is somewhat more complicated by the standards of modern readers. For the author’s contemporaries, characters like Nicolas and Pilar are unquestionably “good,” given their exercise of gender-specific virtues of courage and principle, and modesty and commitment, respectively. By contrast, El Zarco’s lust and Manuela’s greed indicate sinful and corrupt natures very much deserving of their ultimate fates. Manuela’s refusal to return to the “good” side, and to recognize her lover’s nature in the face of the evidence, might, for contemporary readers, have been seen as evidence of an inherently evil nature that her youth and inexperience could not excuse. However, for modern readers, Manuela is far more sympathetic, as a figure rebelling against the restrictive gender norms of her society. Similarly, while Sánchez is, by the standards of late nineteenth-century Mexican citizens, a heroic figure, his willingness to set aside the rules and conventions of war in order to do justice sits less comfortably with modern readers, who might see the dangerous and destabilizing elements of his vigilanteism.

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